Op/Ed

Ways of Seeing: Grabbing small fistfuls of joy

Vermont’s recent spike in COVID-19 cases, and subsequent restrictions are scary and sad. It’s Thanksgiving week, and I’m proud of all my friends who are choosing to stay home with immediate family only, instead of risking larger gatherings that we know will lead to more COVID cases just before Christmas. My heart is with everyone who works in hospitals. They are already exhausted and traumatized after the last eight months, and they know things are about to get worse.
Whenever I feel my enthusiasm for staying home start to wane, I remember a powerful video I saw, right when COVID-19 first stopped everything. It’s only a few seconds long, and begins with a shot of hundreds of mousetraps set up in a giant grid, very close together. Each mousetrap is set, and has a single ping pong ball balanced on top of it. Someone takes one more ping pong ball and drops it onto one of the traps. When the trap is sprung, its ping pong ball flies up, setting off one trap after another, rapid fire. Now we cut to another shot, another grid of mouse traps and ping pong balls, only these ones are all spaced apart. Again, someone drops a single ping pong ball, but this time it bounces harmlessly, not setting off a single mouse trap. The words “Stop the Spread. Social Distancing Works” appear. End scene.
We must stay home whenever possible. 
But in spite of what science understands about the need to physically distance ourselves, we have watched COVID rates climb in this country, up and up and up. The knowledge that a criminal absence of national leadership has led to the deaths of 267,000 Americans is heartbreaking in the extreme. Until a reliable vaccine has been widely deployed, we must stay home. A long, cold, dark Vermont winter looms ahead. How will we make it through?
Here are some tips for maintaining physical, mental, and spiritual health, I hope they are as helpful to you as they have been to me.
1. Help a neighbor. If you have the wherewithal to pick up groceries to save someone a trip to the store, it can make a giant difference in a neighbor’s life. Try plugging into a Mutual Aid network (all our small towns have them!) and you can find someone who can use a hand. Of course there are many other ways to help besides running errands, I am partial to dropping off baked goods, and also paying Direct Reparations to Black people of marginalized genders.
2. Learn something new. What a great time to learn another language, a new form of dance, how to bake bread, or play an instrument.
3. Develop a breathing practice. Breathing? Don’t we do that all day and night? Why yes, we do. But many of us breathe incompletely, especially when we are under stress. The large muscle that separates the abdomen from the chest cavity is the diaphragm, and it moves up and down with every breath we take. Take a long deep breath right now, and see if you feel your belly move. (I’ll wait.) That movement of your belly is caused by the descent of the diaphragm. When you exhale, your diaphragm domes up into the chest cavity, which pushes the air out of your lungs. Taking long, slow breaths, in and out, will encourage a bigger, fuller movement of the diaphragm, which in turn leads to a healthier breathing pattern, one of the best things you can do for your mental health. You can return to these deep, slow breaths many, many times a day.
4. Be vulnerable. We are all going to have days where we lose our perspective, our patience, our good humor. Why try to hide it? Reaching out when we are suffering gives our friends the opportunity to be there for us. It also gives them permission to be real with us when they are struggling. Is there one friend or family member you could even make a pact with, that you’ll send each other a daily text, just to check in and say hi?
5. Treat yourself! It’s true, many of our favorite pleasures are temporarily off limits until COVID-19 is under control. But take an inventory of things you enjoy that are still available to you. Here are a few of mine: a hot bath, a great book, a funny movie, a pot of soup, watching the fire catch in the wood stove in the morning. Sending a letter to a friend, a long walk, a steaming cup of tea, appreciating the beautiful shape of the trees outside your window, now that the leaves are down. 
This pandemic offers us one painful lesson after another about how interconnected we are, every last one of us. The myth of rugged individualism, everyone fighting for themselves, is just that, a brutal myth. We’re in this together. The more we take that truth into our hearts, the more we will want to do everything possible to keep one another safe and healthy, from wearing our masks, to repairing the gaping holes in our social contract. None of us are free until all of us are free.
Joanna Colwell is the director of Otter Creek Yoga in Middlebury’s Marble Works district, although currently all classes are held online via Zoom. She is also a board member of WomenSafe (and would like to thank everyone who is contributing to our annual appeal). Joanna is one of the coordinators of the Middlebury chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice, a national organization that advocates for white people to work on dismantling oppressive systems.

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